Families with school-age kidsWhile babies are utterly dependent on you to lug them around, school-age kids are more active and more independent. They more often get into and out of the car on their own, and they buckle and unbuckle themselves. They also bring things along in the car, ranging from tennis rackets, soccer balls, and football helmets to bikes, scooters, book bags, game consoles, and friends. “With school-age kids, you’re going from strollers to sports,” Consumer Reports' Stockburger said.
So you’ll need plenty of cargo space and, even more important, you’ll want that space to be usable and versatile. Does the rear seat fold down? If so, is it a split design that allows one side to be folded separately from the other side? For carrying extra-long items, can the front passenger seat also fold down? The Ford Fusion is one recommended sedan that has all those seat features, except for the Fusion hybrid, which does not have a fold-down rear.
If you're considering a seven-passenger vehicle with a third-row seat, check whether the third seat must be removed completely when not needed or, better, whether it can simply be folded out of the way. Two SUVs with fold-flat third-row seats are the midsized Toyota Highlander and the large Chevrolet Traverse.
Remember that cargo areas that are at waist height and trunks that don’t have a large lip that you have to lift items over are typically easier to load and unload.
Remember life in the back seat when you were a kid? There wasn’t much to do on long trips beyond counting Volkswagens or punching your sister in the arm. Nowadays, if your budget and propensity to spoil your kids allows, you can provide pint-size passengers with a virtual theater on wheels. But first, think about the basics that will be used every day.
Stockburger advises that you look for cup holders in the backseat, especially those that can accommodate a juice box, and storage areas such as pockets in the seats, which can keep plenty of toys and books within easy reach while also keeping those items from becoming dangerous projectiles in the event of a crash.
Such features, in part, are what sold Melissa Larrey and Tracy Bouton of Falmouth, Mass., on their 2010 Toyota Sienna. As the parents of 10-year-old and eight-year-old boys, they totally appreciate the Sienna’s “seemingly everywhere” cup holders.
“It’s great that the kids can reach things and get to their own stuff,” Larrey said. “It makes such a difference.”
For older kids, Stockburger suggests considering 12-volt power ports for plugging in games and rear DVD players, which can keep your child occupied and, perhaps, prevent sibling squabbles during long drives.
For families who love music, a good sound system helps the time go by, as children can be lulled by music or can spend hours on a long trip listening to a recorded book. Some systems let your children listen to their music on headphones while you listen to yours through the speakers.
"The safety and functional aspects are most important,” Stockburger said. “But the niceties make travel enjoyable.”
Zoom with a view
Once your kid moves out of his car seat and into a booster, he can truly look out the window. And looking out that window is important, notes David Champion, director of Consumer Reports’ Auto Test Center.
"If they can't look out the window, that can trigger boredom and bickering among siblings," he said. Besides becoming bored, kids who can’t see out are more likely to suffer from motion sickness, Stockburger said.
Make sure your kids get a chance to try out the view from the backseat before you purchase the model of your choice. And if you have a child who is still using a toddler booster or booster, keep in mind while car shopping that when he outgrows the booster and is sitting directly on the vehicle’s seat, his eye level will be lower for a while than it was when he sat on the booster.
That is a big change for kids, Stockburger points out, because they’ve “dropped down from the booster seat to the actual car seat, which can be the difference between looking out a car’s door window and looking at the car’s door." "We’ve noticed that on many new vehicles, the window line rises up as it moves toward the rear of the car," she said. "This can really limit a child’s ability to see out.”
The trusty minivan
Minivans are an excellent choice for families because the windows are lower in relation to seat height, giving kids a better view out. Yes, (sigh) minivans.
“I remember thinking, ‘We are total losers now,’” Valerie Pratt De Jong, a mother of three from Charlestown, W.Va., said while laughing and recalling when she and her husband, Dan, bought their 2001 Honda Odyssey. “I remember feeling that this was one of the darkest days of our lives.”
Still, Ms. De Jong got through it: with kids 3, 8, and 10 years old, she didn’t think she had a choice. But she also points out that with three kids and three rows of seating, whichever kid ends up in the back row is there alone. Even so, De Jong says she believes she’s more bothered by that than her kids are. Indeed, what bothers her more is that in the minivan, she finds it hard to hand things to her kids or even hear them. “I just don’t like them being so far away from me,” De Jong said.
Adam Van Dale, of Tiverton, R.I., is also the father of three kids (ages 3, 7, and 9), and, as an owner of a Subaru Tribeca, also contends with three-row seating.
Because his kids’ car seats all couldn’t fit in one row, he, like De Jong, now has a lone kid in the last row who, because the seat sits so low in the Tribeca, can only talk to the seat.
“I will always be amazed that due to three car seats, I had to get a seven-passenger car,” Van Dale said.
Melissa Larrey and Tracy Bouton are simply amazed at how much more space their Sienna offers than the other vehicle they drive, an ’04 Saturn Vue. “We’re comfortable in the front, the kids are comfortable in the back” Larry said. “And we can throw the dog in there, too!”
As for when kids should move from those back rows to the front seat, Stockburger recommends that 12- and 13-year-olds remain in the rear seats, as they are much more likely to fare better there in an accident than in the front seat.
As the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety puts it: “Placing children in the back instead of the front reduces injury risk by 64 percent for the newborns to 8-year-olds and reduces the risk by 31 percent for 9- to 12-year-olds.”
“We would all be safer in the rear seat,” Stockburger said. “It would be great if we could drive from back there.”
Along with stressing that kids stay in the back seats for as long as possible, Stockburger urges that kids stay in their booster seats for as long as possible.
“Don’t be in a rush to get your kids into their next level of seating, be it booster seats, the back seat, the front seat, or the driver’s seat,” Stockburger said. “There’s nothing wrong with them staying put for as long as possible. It’s all about their safety.”